Monday, August 6, 2012

Religious Right Still Triumphing In Backward USA, Media Deceptions About Tax Cuts/Social Security Instability, and Harry's Inside Game (Tributes To One of My Favorites Authors of All Time - Gore Vidal LIVES!!!!)

No. No matter how it reads, the righties are not awakening from a bad (rage-inspired) theocrat-centric dream and willing to redo the last 30 years of religious American Talibanism to reclaim their integrity.

They just want their party back now that they've achieved their goals of domination of the political sphere.

Oh, and I'll say it again. If you think Rmoney is only in trouble (this week) for his obvious idiocy during his recent foreign tour remember that he was just the best of the worst of the Primary circus clown show and was undoubtedly a stalking horse(!) for whomever the GOP inside money boys have decided to thrust upon US at the upcoming Republican Convention. So stay tuned as it won't be long now before the great unveiling. (Oh, and one more aside - since the Clinton-chasing fest in the 90's, I've never thought of the ilk of Candy Crowley (or most of the other so-called traditional MSM lasciviously-excited questioners) as journalists, and cannot fathom how they can continue to appear on national news without guffaws emanating continuously from the camera crew. I also decided this morning to run this whole essay because it's important and most people will not click on the link to the source because they believe they know all the ramifications of this situation already. I think they don't (I know I didn't know all the background to it), and that it's important not to overlook this seemingly obvious nefarious pathway to sure political victory by the "demonologists.")

GOP Insider: Religion Destroyed My Party

A veteran Republican says the religious right has taken over, and turned his party into anti-intellectual nuts

GOP insider: Religion destroyed my party

(This article is an excerpt from the book "The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless and the Middle Class Got Shafted," available from Viking.)

Having observed politics up close and personal for most of my adult lifetime, I have come to the conclusion that the rise of politicized religious fundamentalism may have been the key ingredient in the transformation of the Republican Party. Politicized religion provides a substrate of beliefs that rationalizes — at least in the minds of its followers — all three of the GOP’s main tenets: wealth worship, war worship, and the permanent culture war.

Religious cranks ceased to be a minor public nuisance in this country beginning in the 1970s and grew into a major element of the Republican rank and file. Pat Robertson’s strong showing in the 1988 Iowa presidential caucus signaled the gradual merger of politics and religion in the party. Unfortunately, at the time I mostly underestimated the implications of what I was seeing.

It did strike me as oddly humorous that a fundamentalist staff member in my congressional office was going to take time off to convert the heathen in Greece, a country that had been overwhelmingly Christian for almost two thousand years.
I recall another point, in the early 1990s, when a different fundamentalist GOP staffer said that dinosaur fossils were a hoax. As a mere legislative mechanic toiling away in what I held to be a civil rather than ecclesiastical calling, I did not yet see that ideological impulses far different from mine were poised to capture the party of Lincoln.

The results of this takeover are all around us: If the American people poll more like Iranians or Nigerians than Europeans or Canadians on questions of evolution, scriptural inerrancy, the presence of angels and demons, and so forth, it is due to the rise of the religious right, its insertion into the public sphere by the Republican Party, and the consequent normalizing of formerly reactionary beliefs. All around us now is a prevailing anti-intellectualism and hostility to science. Politicized religion is the sheet anchor of the dreary forty-year-old culture wars.

The Constitution notwithstanding, there is now a de facto religious test for the presidency: Major candidates are encouraged (or coerced) to share their feelings about their faith in a revelatory speech, or a televangelist like Rick Warren will dragoon the candidates (as he did with Obama and McCain in 2008) to debate the finer points of Christology, offering himself as the final arbiter. Half a century after John F. Kennedy put to rest the question of whether a candidate of a minority denomination could be president, the Republican Party has reignited the kinds of seventeenth-century religious controversies that advanced democracies are supposed to have outgrown. And some in the media seem to have internalized the GOP’s premise that the religion of a candidate is a matter for public debate.

Throughout the 2012 Republican presidential campaign, Mitt Romney was dogged with questions about his religion. The spark was a hitherto obscure fundamentalist preacher from Texas, Robert Jeffress, who attacked Romney’s Mormonism by doubting whether he could really be considered a Christian. The media promptly set aside the issues that should have been paramount — Romney’s views on economic and foreign policy — in order to spend a week giving respectful consideration to an attention-grabbing rabble-rouser. They then proceeded to pester the other candidates with the loaded question of whether they thought Romney was a Christian. CNN’s Candy Crowley was particularly egregious in this respect, pressing Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann for a response and becoming indignant when they refused to answer.

The question did not deserve an answer, because Crowley had set it up to legitimate a false premise: that Romney’s religious belief was a legitimate issue of public debate.
This is a perfect example of how the media reinforce an informal but increasingly binding religious test for public office that the Constitution formally bans. Like the British constitution, the test is no less powerful for being unwritten.

The religious right’s professed insistence upon “family values” might appear at first blush to be at odds with the anything but saintly personal behavior of many of its leading proponents. Some of this may be due to the general inability of human beings to reflect on conflicting information: I have never ceased to be amazed at how facts manage to bounce off people’s consciousness like pebbles off armor plate. But there is another, uniquely religious aspect that also comes into play: the predilection of fundamentalist denominations to believe in practice, even if not entirely in theory, in the doctrine of “cheap grace,” a derisive term coined by the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. By that he meant the inclination of some religious adherents to believe that once they had been “saved,” not only would all past sins be wiped away, but future ones, too — so one could pretty much behave as before.

Cheap grace is a divine get-out-of-jail-free card. Hence the tendency of the religious base of the Republican Party to cut some slack for the peccadilloes of candidates who claim to have been washed in the blood of the Lamb and reborn to a new and more Christian life. The religious right is willing to overlook a politician’s individual foibles, no matter how poor an example he or she may make, if they publicly identify with fundamentalist values.
In 2011 the Family Research Council, the fundamentalist lobbying organization, gave Representative Joe Walsh of Illinois an award for “unwavering support of the family.” Representative Walsh’s ex-wife might beg to differ, as she claims he owes her over one hundred thousand dollars in unpaid child support, a charge he denies.

Of course, the proper rituals must be observed before an erring politician can obtain absolution. In November 2011, at a forum sponsored by religious conservatives in Iowa, all of the GOP presidential candidates struck the expected notes of contrition and humility as they laid bare their souls before the assembled congregation (the event was held in a church). Most of them, including Cain, who was then still riding high, choked up when discussing some bleak midnight of their lives (he chose not to address the fresh sexual harassment charges against him, which surely would have qualified as a trying personal experience preying on his mind). Even the old reprobate Gingrich misted up over some contrived misdeed intended to distract attention from his well-known adventures in serial matrimony.

All of these gloomy obsequies of repentance having been observed, Gingrich gave a stirring example of why he is hands-down the best extemporaneous demagogue in contemporary America. Having purged his soul of all guilty transgressions, he turned his attention to the far graver sins bedeviling the American nation.

If we look at history from the mid-1960s, we’ve gone from a request for toleration to an imposition of intolerance. We’ve gone from a request to understand others to a determination to close down those who hold traditional values. I think that we need to be very aggressive and very direct. The degree to which the left is prepared to impose intolerance and to drive out of existence traditional religion is a mortal threat to our civilization and deserves to be taken head-on and described as what it is, which is the use of government to repress the American people against their own values.
That is as good an example as any of cheap grace as practiced by seasoned statesmen like Gingrich — a bid for redemption turned on its head to provide a forum for one of the Republican Party’s favorite pastimes: taking opportunistic swipes at the dreaded liberal bogeyman. How quickly one forgets one’s own moral lapses when one can consider the manifold harms inflicted on our nation by godless leftists!
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Some liberal writers have opined that the socioeconomic gulf separating the business wing of the GOP and the religious right make it an unstable coalition that could crack. I am not so sure. There is no basic disagreement on which direction the two factions want to take the country, merely how far it should go. The plutocrats would drag us back to the Gilded Age; the theocrats to the Salem witch trials. If anything, the two groups are increasingly beginning to resemble each other. Many televangelists have espoused what has come to be known as the prosperity gospel — the health-and-wealth/name-it-and-claim-it gospel of economic entitlement. If you are wealthy, it is a sign of God’s favor. If not, too bad! This rationale may explain why some poor voters will defend the prerogatives of billionaires. In any case, at the beginning of the 2012 presidential cycle, those consummate plutocrats the Koch brothers pumped money into Bachmann’s campaign, so one should probably not make too much of a potential plutocrat-theocrat split.

Most of the religious enthusiasts I observed during my tenure on the Hill seemed to have little reluctance to mix God and Mammon. Rick Santorum did not blink at legislative schemes to pay off his campaign contributors: In 2005 he introduced a bill to forbid the National Weather Service from providing weather forecasts for free that commercial forecasters — like AccuWeather, a Pennsylvania-based company which had contributed to his campaign — wanted to charge for. Tom DeLay’s purported concern about the dignity and sanctity of human life, touchingly on display during the controversy over whether Terri Schiavo’s husband had the right to tell doctors to remove her feeding tube after seeing her comatose for fifteen years, could always be qualified by strategic infusions of campaign cash. DeLay’s quashing of bills to prohibit serious labor abuses demonstrates that even religious virtue can be flexible when there are campaign donations involved.

One might imagine that the religious right’s agenda would be incompatible with the concerns for privacy and individual autonomy by those who consider themselves to belong to the libertarian wing of the Republican Party — the “don’t tread on me,” “live free or die” crowd that Grover Norquist once called the “leave me alone” conservatives. Given their profound distaste for an oppressive and intrusive federal government, one would think they might have trepidations about a religious movement determined to impose statutory controls on private behavior that libertarians nominally hold to be nobody’s business, and particularly not the government’s business.

Some more libertarian-leaning Republicans have in fact pushed back against the religious right. Former House majority leader Dick Armey expressed his profound distaste for the tactics of the religious right in 2006 — from the safety of the sidelines — by blasting its leadership in unequivocal terms:

[James] Dobson and his gang of thugs are real nasty bullies. I pray devoutly every day, but being a Christian is no excuse for being stupid. There’s a high demagoguery coefficient to issues like prayer in schools. Demagoguery doesn’t work unless it’s dumb, shallow as water on a plate. These issues are easy for the intellectually lazy and can appeal to a large demographic. These issues become bigger than life, largely because they’re easy. There ain’t no thinking.
Armey had previously been an economics professor at several cow colleges in Texas, and when he came to Congress in 1985, libertarian economics was his forte. I do not recall religious issues motivating his political ideology; instead, economics was what gripped him, particularly the flat tax, which he tirelessly promoted.

I believe his departure from Congress was impelled not only by the fact that he was not on the inside track to become Speaker, but also because of his disillusionment with the culture wars, as his passionate denunciation of Dobson suggests. But later, Barack Obama’s election and the rise of the Tea Party induced a miraculous change of heart in Armey, as no doubt did the need to raise money for his lobbying organization, known as FreedomWorks.

By 2009, Armey had become a significant voice of the Tea Party. As such, he attempted to declare a truce between fiscal and social conservatives, who would thenceforth bury their squabbles and concentrate on dethroning the Kenyan usurper in the Oval Office. That meant soft-pedaling social issues that might alarm fiscally conservative but socially moderate voters, particularly women, who lived in the wealthier suburbs.

In September 2010 Armey took one step further in his reconciliation with the people he had called thugs and bullies when he announced that a GOP majority in Congress would again take up the abortion fight, which was only right and proper for those who held such a sincere moral conviction. When the Republicans duly won the House two months later, they did precisely that. State legislatures across the country followed suit: Ohio, Texas, and Virginia enacted the most severe abortion restrictions in any legislative session in memory. Suddenly Armey didn’t seem to have any problem with social issues preempting his economic agenda.

The Tea Party, which initially described itself as wholly concerned with debt, deficit, and federal overreach, gradually unmasked itself as being almost as theocratic as the activists from the religious right that Armey had denounced only a few years before.
If anything, they were even slightly more disposed than the rest of the Republican Party to inject religious issues into the political realm.

According to an academic study of the Tea Party, “[T]hey seek ‘deeply religious’ elected officials, approve of religious leaders’ engaging in politics and want religion brought into political debates.” The Tea Party faithful are not so much libertarian as authoritarian, the furthest thing from a “live free or die” constitutionalist.

Within the GOP libertarianism is a throwaway doctrine that is rhetorically useful in certain situations but often interferes with their core, more authoritarian, beliefs. When the two precepts collide, the authoritarian reflex prevails. In 2009 it was politically useful for the GOP to present the Tea Party as independent-leaning libertarians, when in reality the group was overwhelmingly Republican, with a high quotient of GOP activists and adherents of views common among the religious right.

According to a 2010 Gallup poll, eight in ten Tea Party members identify themselves as Republicans. Another study found that over half identified as members of the religious right and 55 percent of Tea Partiers agree that “America has always been and is currently a Christian nation” — 6 points more than even the percentage of self-described Christian conservatives who would agree to that.

This religious orientation should have been evident from the brouhaha that erupted in mid-2009 over the charge that the Obama administration’s new healthcare reform plan would set up “death panels.” While there was plenty to criticize about the health-care bill, the completely bogus charge garnered disproportionate attention. Republican political consultants immediately recognized that they had found a classic emotional issue that would resonate with the same people on the religious right who had been stirred up over the Terri Schiavo case.

The Tea Party, a supposedly independent group of fiscal conservatives outraged by Obama’s profligate spending plans, fell prey to the hysteria Republican Party operatives whipped up over end-of-life counseling. This self-unmasking of the Tea Party may help explain why, after three years in existence, public support for the organization has been dropping precipitously.

Ayn Rand, an occasional darling of the Tea Party, has become a cult figure within the GOP in recent years. It is easy enough to see how her tough-guy, every-man-for-himself posturing would be a natural fit with the Wall Street bankers and the right-wing politicians they fund — notwithstanding the bankers’ fondness for government bailouts. But Rand’s philosophy found most of its adherents in the libertarian wing of the party, a group that overlaps with, but is certainly not identical to, the “business conservatives” who fund the bulk of the GOP’s activities.

There has always been a strong strain of rugged individualism in America, and the GOP has cleverly managed to co-opt that spirit to its advantage. The problem is that Rand proclaimed at every opportunity that she was a militant atheist who felt nothing but contempt for Christianity as a religion of weaklings possessing a slave mentality. So how do Republican candidates manage to bamboozle what is perhaps the largest single bloc in their voting base, the religious fundamentalists, about this?

Certainly the ignorance of many fundamentalist values voters about the wider world and the life of the mind goes some distance toward explaining the paradox: GOP candidates who enthuse over Rand at the same time as they thump their Bibles never have to explain this stark contradiction because most of their audience is blissfully unaware of who Ayn Rand was and what she advocated. But voters can to some extent be forgiven their ignorance, because politicians have grown so skillful at misdirecting them about their intentions.

This camouflaging of intentions is as much a strategy of the religious right and its leaders — James Dobson, Tony Perkins, Pat Robertson, and the rest — as it is of the GOP’s more secular political leaders in Washington. After the debacle of the Schiavo case and the electoral loss in 2008, the religious right pulled back and regrouped. They knew that the full-bore, “theoconservative” agenda would not sell with a majority of voters.

This strategy accounts for Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition (who famously said that God sent a hurricane to New Orleans to punish the sodomites), stating the following in October 2011:

“Those people in the Republican primary have got to lay off of this stuff. They’re forcing their leaders, the front-runners, into positions that will mean they lose the general election.”

I doubt he thought the candidates held positions that were too extreme, merely that they should keep quiet about those positions until they had won the election. Max Blumenthal, author of Republican Gomorrah, argues that this is a “lying for Jesus” strategy that fundamentalists often adopt when dealing with the snares of a wicked and Godless world. Since Satan is the father of lies, one can be forgiven for fighting lies with lies.

Hence the policies pursued for at least two decades by the religious right on the federal, state, and local levels. It usually starts at the school board, after some contrived uproar over sex education or liberal indoctrination. The stealthily fundamentalist school board candidates pledge to clean up the mess and “get back to basics.” After a few years they capture a majority on the board, and suddenly “Catcher in the Rye” is heaved out of the curriculum and science teachers are under pressure to teach the (imaginary) controversy about evolutionary biology.

This was the path to greater glory of Michele Bachmann: Her first run for public office, barely a dozen years ago, was for a seat on the school board in Stillwater, Minnesota. Up until then she had drawn a taxpayer-funded salary for five years working as an attorney for the Internal Revenue Service, not, of course, because she was one of those lazy, good-for-nothing government bureaucrats that Republican candidates routinely denounce. She was secretly studying the ways of the government beast so as to defeat it later on.

Bachmann, Rick Perry, and numerous other serving representatives and senators have all had ties to Christian Dominionism, a doctrine proclaiming that Christians are destined to dominate American politics and establish a new imperium resembling theocratic government. According to one profile of Perry, adherents of Dominionism “believe Christians — certain Christians — are destined to not just take ‘dominion’ over government, but stealthily climb to the commanding heights of what they term the ‘Seven Mountains’ of society, including the media and the arts and entertainment world.” Note the qualifier: “stealthily.”

At the same religious forum where the GOP candidates confessed their sins, Bachmann went so far as to suggest that organized religion should keep its traditional legal privilege of tax exemption while being permitted to endorse political candidates from the pulpit. The fact that government prohibits express political advocacy is in her imagination muzzling preachers rather than just being a quid pro quo for tax-exempt status equivalent to that imposed on any 501(c)3 or 501(c)4 nonprofit organization. But for Bachmann and others of like mind, this is persecution of a kind that fuels their sense of victimhood and righteous indignation.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _

Major Media Admit Presence of Foreign Militants in Syria
Phone hacking: Met chiefs given £300,000 payoffs after resigning

Harry’s (Also a Mormon) Inside Game

Child Sexual Abuse in the World of Romney's Top LDS Donors

Prince Bandar: A Timely Death Just Before US Justice Department Reopens Bribery Investigations?

Sirota on Media Deceptions About Tax Cuts
_ _ _ _ _ _ _

Yes, I've been a devoted fan of Gore Vidal, who just passed away last week, since I read his novel Julian. There are constellations of stellar tributes to his almost one-of-a-kind perceptive writer's sensibility available. Here are a few memorable ones. Chris Floyd's is always a fine place to look first when seeking out a fellow litterateur's turn of phrase.

Listen to the Lion: The Enduring Legacy of Gore Vidal

Chris Floyd   
Wednesday, 01 August 2012

If the Republic still existed, if it was even a shadow of what it was meant to be (and never was), then bells would be tolling across the land and flags would be flying at half-mast, in sorrowful honor for one of its true sons. Gore Vidal is dead.

The loss is great. His was a unique sensibility: artistic, caustic, unsentimental, casting a Yeatsian cold eye on the human comedy, and in this way -- with no false pieties, no dogma, no ideological crutches -- revealing, with inescapable clarity, the rank injustices and murderous hypocrisies of power, and the ludicrous pretenses of power's sycophants.

It was the artist in Vidal -- largely overlooked, especially now, in death, as pages and pixels fill up with quick ricochets of his Wildean bon mots and Twitter-ready soundbites -- that gave his work a special force.

As with Tolstoy, Vidal's fiction -- the insight that it showed into the complexities of human nature and human society, and the accomplishment and subtlety with which this was put across -- deepened and enriched his political and literary essays, gave them more credibility. And as with Tolstoy, you might not agree with every conclusion (although in matters of politics, society and culture, I very rarely disagreed with Vidal), but the art showed a mind, a spirit, that deserved to be taken seriously.

Vidal obviously relished his outsized, gadfly role in American politics and media: his self-appointed (and entirely credible) persona as the Alternative President to whatever poltroon happened to be occupying the White House at any given moment -- even down to the issuing of his own "State of the Union" essays from time to time, always devastating in their corrosive wit and blistering truths about American society.

The vast body of his non-fiction is captured best in the massive 1992 compendium, United States: 1,271 pages long -- and not a boring passage in the entire book. (This is in itself a near-miraculous achievement of the art of prose; even Montaigne nods, but not Vidal.) Its three sections -- State of the Art, State of the Union, and State of Being -- comprise a kind of marvelous postgraduate education in life and learning -- worth more, and far more useful, than a PhD from Harvard or an Oxford PPE.

It is here we see not only Vidal the thinker and media figure, but Vidal the man: steeped in history -- like few others of his time and almost no one of our day -- yet also riding on the sharp, cool edge of modernity as it sliced its way through the 20th century.

He seemed to radiate a sense of liberation, in many forms: political, sexual, cultural. He was also a consummate detector of bullshit, and a ruthless dismantler of its celebrated dispensers. (His evisceration of John Updike -- "Rabbit's Own Burrow" -- is a splenetic wonder, on a par with Mark Twain's takedown of Fennimore Cooper or Robert Graves' demolition of Ezra Pound, leaving the reader incapable of taking the victim seriously again.)

But again, I come back to the fiction. I think this is where Vidal's true greatness lies. Perhaps so much in the "experimental" novels, the surreal affairs like Myra Breckenridge, Duluth, and Live From Golgotha. As enjoyable and insightful as these are, they seem to me more like extensions of his political writings: send-ups, or mash-ups, of American society, in broad strokes, a species of commentary.

Of course, this might just be a matter of personal taste. But for me, his accomplishment reaches its height in several of his other novels, most of them in historical settings, which are brought to uncanny life through the sharply-realized consciousness of individual human beings. Though the novels are set in the past, these characters are always in their present, in the eternal now where we all live, making our way through the chaos of the moment to the forever-unknowable future.

is generally considered the best of the novels, with good reason. It is a remarkably effective -- and remarkably subtle -- example of the "polyphonic novel," as pioneered by Dostoevsky and championed by Bakhtin. Through a kaleidoscope of consciousnesses, Vidal reanimates the crucible of the American experience -- the Civil War -- and the man whom Vidal called our "most mysterious of presidents."

Lincoln was part of what Vidal came to see as a series of related novels, a family chronicle -- and a national epic of America's peculiar history: "Narratives of a Golden Age," beginning with the presidency of Thomas Jefferson and ending at the dawn of the 1960s (with an epilogue in the new millennium). While Lincoln may hold pride of place in the Narratives, several others in the series are also outstanding works, particularly Burr, 1876 and Empire.

The Narratives caught a perfect pitch of the faint but persistent idealism -- the humanism -- wafting through the always-overpowering, and always-triumphant, corruptions of power in the miasmic swamps of Washington and beyond, as the Republic slouched bloodily toward its current monstrosity of empire. But Vidal, of all people, was no American Exceptionalist, and neither was his best work confined to America's mores and madness.

In fact, I believe that his finest novel, his finest work of art, was Julian: an astonishing recreation of the life and mind of the Classical world during its final, fatal flowering during the short reign of "Julian the Apostate," the Roman emperor who tried to reverse the Empire's conversion to Christianity, initiated a half-century earlier by Constantine I. The book is steeped in a rigorous historical learning that is worn so slightly, is so thoroughly worked into the very human story of a very human man, that it is scarcely noticeable at all. Julian's world simply lives, and the reader lives in it -- yet at the end, emerges with a new understanding of this absolutely crucial period of history.

In the same vein is Creation, which once again immerses us in the human realities of a crucial era in the life of humanity: the "Axial Age," which saw the rise and development of new religions and new thinking across the world, an era when Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, Jeremiah, Zoroaster, Lao Tzu, early Greek philosophers like Heraclitus and other pivotal figures were walking the earth and revolutionizing ancient structures of thought and belief. But again, the learning is carried lightly, in the ironic person of Cyrus Spitama, a witty, aging Persian diplomat in Athens whose main claim to fame is that he is Zoroaster's grandson. He narrates the tale of his long life -- his youth in the Persian court of Darius and Xerxes, his sojourns in India and China, and the machinations and corruptions of the rising Greek city-states.

This is not the time or place for an exhaustive look at Vidal's literary achievements. (For more on this theme, see Critical Malfunction: Misreading Gore Vidal.) But in the media onslaught of obituaries and appraisals, most of which seem, perhaps understandably, to focus on the gadfly persona noted above, I thought it was important to recall this vital element of Vidal's legacy: his fiction, which at its best has richly enhanced our awareness of what it is to be a living human being -- mortal, troubled, confused, alone -- caught up in the maelstrom of historical forces we can scarcely understand and cannot control.

It is no small thing to have left such a mark. It is a legacy well worth celebrating, and one that will outlast even the wittiest and most telling of his aperçus.


On a personal note, it would be hard for me to overestimate Vidal's influence on how I see the world, in so many different areas. His death is like losing a spiritual father. (If I can be forgiven for using such an outrageous term for a man so entirely worldly!) His work schooled me and sharpened me and, in the words of Henry Miller (another writer he once wittily skewered, albeit with more affection than bile), "inoculated me with disillusionment" -- a task which Miller called the highest purpose of an artist.

Vidal made me see the world -- and myself -- with new eyes, and taught me how to keep on seeing in this way:  relentlessly, fearlessly, unsentimentally casting "a cold eye, on life, on death." I've fallen short of this teaching -- woefully, continually -- at nearly every turn, but it is still there, a lodestar in a night sky that is now a bit more lonely, more harrowing than it was.

Tolstoy and Vidal: A Follow-Up

Chris Floyd   
03 August 2012

A passage from my piece on Gore Vidal yesterday ("As with Tolstoy, Vidal's fiction -- the insight that it showed into the complexities of human nature and human society, and the accomplishment and subtlety with which this was put across -- deepened and enriched his political and literary essays, gave them more credibility") brought this response from a reader:
The comparison with Tolstoy fails completely, to the detriment of Gore Vidal. In his thought Tolstoy was a religious crank  who thought in crude black and white. None of the genius he brought to his fiction carried across to his later religious and moralistic writings.

The plain fact is, having read both some of Gore Vidal's  fiction and heard him speak on video etc, he is more consistent than Tolstoy and thus immeasurably superior.

To which, this brief reply:

Opinions on these matters are all subjective, of course; one man's "crank" (an epithet applied not infrequently to Vidal himself by those eager to dismiss his discomforting views) is another man's exemplar. But, with respect, I must say I find it hard to believe that you have actually read any of Tolstoy's non-fiction writings on politics and power and war (as opposed to any of the "religious crankery" you might have run across.) And I seriously doubt that Vidal would have shared your opinion of these anti-war, anti-elite, anti-establishment pieces. (Such as those collected in Letters From Tula, for example.)

Certainly Vidal would have found much of Tolstoy's religious writings to be risible -- though I doubt he would have found them 'crude,' as he would have recognized the complex learning that lay behind them, and their logical, iconoclastic rigour (while, again, rejecting their religious premises). But beyond Tolstoy's typically 19th century hang-ups about sex, his "religious crankery" focused mainly on ending war, ending coercion and corruption by powerful elites and institutions (including all religions), and establishing social, political and economic justice. There's very little there that Vidal would have found entirely uncongenial, I think.

He might also have delighted in the fact that Tolstoy's religious beliefs shook one of the world's most powerful and repressive religious institutions  -- the Russian Orthodox Church -- to its foundations, and led multitudes of people out of its stultifying grip. At the core of Tolstoy's beliefs was a fierce commitment to intellectual liberty, to freedom of thought and conscience, even for those who disagreed with whatever particular notion he happened to hold at any particular time. And I imagine Vidal might well have enjoyed Tolstoy's "inconsistency" -- especially the randy Russian's inability to quell his rampant sexuality. After all, 'consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds,' and Vidal probably would have admired the restlessness of Tolstoy's rather large mind, as it groped through the darkness that surrounds us all, chasing flickers of light here and there, never quite satisfied with any final conclusion, but pushed always by doubt, by inner turmoil, and by the desire to know more.

No one would argue that Tolstoy's non-fiction has the power and genius of his greatest novels and stories. That was my point: that the true greatness of both writers lay in their artistic achievement, which lent greater depth and credibility to their non-fiction -- whether or not one agrees with every single judgment or opinion they rendered.

And last but hardly least.

Gore Vidal: The Last Jeffersonian

His enemies knew why they hated him

August 03, 2012

The obituaries are coming in, and as usual they are filled with the trite things Americans are obsessed with: Gore Vidal’s sexuality, his "coldness," his feuds, his quips.
Andrew Sullivan is typical – and isn’t that typical – in ascribing what he views as Vidal’s flaws to his lack of support for gay marriage and his "anti-American" utterances.

Commentary magazine celebrated the great man’s death by posting Norman Podhoretz’s interminable rant, first published in 1986, accusing Vidal of … yes, you guessed it: anti-Semitism. The evidence? Describing Podhoretz and his wife Midge as "Israeli fifth columnists," a charge that, in retrospect, seems more like an undeserved compliment: after all, a "fifth columnist" is something like a spy, a profession that hinges on the clandestine, but Poddy’s big mouth – which he opens at every opportunity – has hardly made a secret of his allegiances.

Aside from Vidal’s disdain for the kind of identity politics that gives a nonentity a hook on which to hang his bonnet, Sullivan is appalled by what is perhaps Vidal’s most interesting book. The Golden Age dramatizes the fascinating historical research published in Thomas E. Mahl’s Desperate Deception: British Covert Operations in the United States, 1939-44.

Mahl’s 1998 book is based on declassified documents that tell some of the story of how British intelligence agents permeated the political and social elites in Washington and New York, pushed a reluctant "isolationist" America into war – and put us on the road to empire. Sullivan, still the loyal subject of Her Majesty the Queen, is horrified by this, but it’s not just the British angle that sets Andy’s skirts aflame – it’s the very idea that anyone in their right mind would question the official history of our entry into World War II. In Sullivan’s world, this makes him a "Pearl Harbor truther."

To the historian, however, who isn’t just a court historian – and to the serious person, as opposed to court jesters of Sullivan’s ilk – this makes him that most exotic of creatures: a truth-seeker. Rarer than unicorns in our media-driven propaganda-drenched Twitterverse, the loss of this one marks a turning point in American intellectual history – a downturn, to be sure.

As I put it in my 2001 review of The Golden Age: "Gore Vidal is a member of what seems to be a nearly extinct fraternity: the American novelists of ideas. When he goes, who is left – and what hope is there that someone will breach the walls of political correctness meant to keep his kind out forever?" His enemies understood him, which is why they hated him – and couldn’t help admiring him.

The neocons hated him because he was a formidable opponent of their imperial project: they never forgave him when he called them out for their treasonous tribalism. The liberals, who thought he was one of them, were made increasingly uneasy by his public utterances, as detailed in this very perceptive account of Vidal’s career by Michael Lind, who describes his attendance at a speech by Vidal given at the Woodrow Wilson Center in the late 1990s:

"Soon I found myself as uncomfortable as the other members of the auditorium audience, when, during his speech, Vidal launched into what sounded like a defense of Timothy McVeigh, the far-right would-be revolutionary whose bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 was the most devastating terrorist attack on American soil before the al-Qaeda attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. While not exactly condoning McVeigh, Vidal told us that a violent reaction was inevitable, given the way that the federal government was oppressing American farmers. "I could sense that others in the audience shared my disquiet. The farmers? What the hell is he talking about?"

To the Washingtonian patricians who grace such events, farmers and other ordinary Americans are alien creatures whose fate is of little if any concern. The farmers? Who the f*ck cares about them? To statist ideologues and other creatures of Washington’s black lagoon, the very idea of individual farmers is "reactionary," to use one of Lind’s favorite epithets.

Yet to be as fair to Lind as he is to Vidal, he is quite correct when, in a eureka moment, he divines that "Gore Vidal has turned into his grandfather." "Vidal," writes Lind, "had always insisted that to understand him it was helpful to understand his grandfather, Thomas Gore (1870-1949).

Blind from an early age, Thomas Gore served as Democratic senator from Oklahoma twice, from 1907-1921 and again from 1931-1937. A populist in the tradition of Jefferson and Jackson, Sen. Gore was a maverick who did not hesitate to take on his own party. He voted against President Woodrow Wilson’s call for U.S. entry into World War I and he voted against President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. In the light of Jeffersonian ideology, each of these votes made sense as efforts to preserve the American republic from the evils of empire and the welfare state."

Unfortunately, Lind insists on mounting his ideological hobbyhorse, and brings in a totally irrelevant comparison to Ignatius Donnelly, and none other than William Hope Harvey, whose didactic and excruciatingly boring "novels" on monetary theory were a late nineteenth century populist phenomenon. Donnelly was a minor Populist party politician of the same era, whose most notable work is Atlantis: the Antediluvian World.

Lind’s condescending tone throughout the review is typical of what one might overhear at a Georgetown cocktail party: he isn’t quite sure Vidal’s fiction output is really all that "literary," or if it’s really literature at all but rather a series of didactic manifestos in the style of Coin’s Financial School.

Once he dismounts his various hobbyhorses, however, Lind can be penetratingly perceptive: "The academic literati do not hold either Vidal or Solzhenitsyn in high esteem — but neither wrote to be read by what Vidal described as ‘the scholar-squirrels.’ If you think that the political and journalistic establishments are corrupt and that fiction provides you with a way to bring your message directly to the public, you are going to write your didactic fiction in a traditional, accessible style that ordinary citizens can understand, not in an avant-garde style that only graduate students in literature can decipher.

Nation columnists wrote about the masses. Gore Vidal wrote for them. "And they loved him for it. Growing up in Texas, I marveled at the way that suburban conservatives who would not read any other fiction would buy the latest Gore Vidal novel. But if you think of Vidal as a populist, it makes sense. He was giving them the inside scoop about American history, the scandalous true story, not the patriotic pablum they were taught in school. The fact that he had grown up as a member of the Washington establishment (as he never ceased reminding his readers and viewers) gave him credibility as he carried out his revisionist project of exposing the secret history of the United States.

What Ayn Rand’s
The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are to libertarians, Vidal’s historical novels have been to middlebrow Middle America." Us poor middlebrows, doomed to live in the Great Middle of the country amid the fast-disintegrating middle class: will we never disabuse ourselves of our middlebrowed prejudices against neo-royalist empire-builders who don’t believe in the existence of farmers and think they can rule the world?

Against all the strictures of patrician good taste and political correctness, we read Gore Vidal and keep our "reactionary" faith in the Jeffersonian vision Lind deplores. As a novelist, Vidal’s great achievement was his "Narratives of Empire" series, which dramatizes what Lind calls a "revisionist" view of American history and I would simply describe as clear-eyed.

The overarching theme of this heptalogy is the long, slow degeneration of what had been the world’s freest republic into a vast and corrupted empire. His portraits of historical figures – the grasping, manipulative FDR, the bullying Churchill, the syphilitic Lincoln – constitute a veritable shooting gallery of the Vital Center’s pantheon of heroes. This earned him the enmity of both left and right.

Unlike Lind, I don’t marvel at the way us "middlebrows" snatched up the latest Gore Vidal novel, and I won’t be surprised to see his posthumously published works shoot to the top of the bestseller list. That’s because the power of what Vidal represented – not the "ranting" of a Southern populist, as Lind would have it, but the sharp dissent of an American original and a literary giant, whose oeuvre will be remembered – and read – long after the journalistic twitterings of his critics are justly forgotten.

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